Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Hittites credited with spreading the word to the world


At last the answer in black and white, or beltz and zuri if you happen to be Basque, or noir and blanc if you are French. You owe the words to Hittite-speaking farmers from Anatolia, who invented agriculture and spread their words as they sowed their seed 9,500 years ago.

Languages, like people, are related. Russell Gray at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, reported in the magazine Nature yesterday that he and a colleague decided to treat language as if it was DNA and compared selected words from 87 languages to build an evolutionary tree of Indo-European languages. This could help solve an old argument: Who picked up the original language and began to spread gradually evolving versions of it across Europe and Asia?

Gray chose 2,449 words from 87 languages, including English, Lithuanian, Gujarati, Romany, Walloon, Breton, Hindi and Pennsylvania Dutch and began a series of comparisons to build up a pattern of descent.

The answer is that words were on the move long before horses. Gray's language tree ended with its roots in Anatolia in modern Turkey around 7,500BC, when villagers speaking a form of Hittite kindled pahhur, or fire, to boil watar, or water, before setting out on pad, or foot, to spread the good word.

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